EXCERPT FROM “YASMINE” BY SHARBARI AHMED
Drink if you like. You should have as good a time here as is commensurate with your duties. Do, however, keep your Indian liquor separated from its two quarrelsome partners, woman and song.
The Calcutta Key, 1945
Helpful Hints for American Military Personnel In India
Of All The Gin Joints…
Akash Alexander Khan ‘61
Mt Hermon School For Boys
I must warn you: this is a love story. I will tell it in my way. In fits and starts because that is the nature of love stories that happen during wars. With delays, disruptions and sudden diversion. I will also keep in mind how much you disliked all that sappy stuff when we used to go to the Lighthouse to watch the picture shows. When Gable kissed Vivien, everyone sighed and you groaned and sunk deeper into your seat. You only pay attention during the war scenes. I know that makes you a normal boy but I am so relieved that you never had to experience war firsthand. I suspect you would not be so enthusiastic about torpedoes if you were staring down the business end of one.
This story, mine, yours, began a long time ago. It actually began before I was even born. Even before my grandmother was born. It began near a small Bengali village called Plassey in 1757 where the British Raj was officially born. We Bengalis consider ourselves the artists and intellectuals of India and pride ourselves on being visionaries. Some enlightened Englishman once said, “What Bengal thinks of first, India realizes later.” Or something like that. So, initially we had no problem with the British—by all accounts they were like wide-eyed children let loose in a candy store and they wanted to partake of everything. But since that first battle in Plassey, we have been agitating to get them out as soon as possible. They got greedy you see, and then of course some religious types showed up and demanded they cease and desist feeling good at once and to that end sent them pinched faced English women, who “tamed” them. As soon as the memsahibs alighted the ships in their crinoline and corsets, the party was over.
Two hundred years later, we were still agitating and had pinned all our hopes on one man. He seemed to be the only one who knew how to get under their stiff upper lip. He did it by doing nothing. He sat quietly, received people, peered at them over his too small spectacles and showered them with love, wove cloth, starved himself and irritated Winston Churchill to the point of dementia—an added benefit.
When they first arrived in the 1600’s to set up a trading post, the Ingrez embraced everything about India. They donned Indian clothing, ate with their fingers from communal platters and learned to speak the various languages fluently. They seemed to draw no distinction between themselves and the natives and became Indians. Most importantly they married Indian women and didn’t just take them as mistresses. Unlike now, of course. It’s amazing how backward modern civilization can be. If the opportunists hadn’t arrived with their frigid, corseted wives, things might have been very different for us.
I know I told you that this was a love story, but it is through no machination of mine. Even my own father was impervious to my charms. He never came back, did he? Men have to be convinced into loving a woman. I can convince a fishmonger to charge ten annas less for a pound of koi but that’s about it. Being pretty is not enough; even being beautiful is not enough. My strength lies in my ability to, as the Americans say, make a buck. I think, in the end, your father admired that. It was also the reason we met.
I am a good businesswoman. In 1942 I became one in earnest. The year the Japanese started bombing Calcutta. I opened a restaurant that I turned into a bit of a night club, called Bombay Duck. That is why I left you every Sunday morning before the sun was even up. That was the hardest thing for me to do. You always insisted that you would see me off but couldn’t open your eyes so early and I kissed you while you slept and started counting the hours until Saturday.
Did you know that Bombay Duck is a fish? I thought I was being frightfully clever when I named the club that. It got its name in a rather complicated way—the fish, that is. The way the tale goes is that the lizardfish, bhamholo, in Bangla gives off a pungent odor when dried. You know the one. Cook always crushes it up and mixes chili and cilantro into and tries to get you to sprinkle it on to your rice. You said the smell makes you gag. Well, they transport the stuff by rail across the country and the train compartments smell heavily of the fish, especially the Bombay Mail or Bombay Dak. Some minor official from Surrey started calling it Bombay Duck in the 19th century, and that was that.
I had a sign of a fish made up and hung it in front of the night club’s small brass plaque that read simply Bombay Duck, est., 1942. The gorah customers found it quirky and exotic. Somehow it summed up India for them. Nothing is what it seems, or maybe things have more than one meaning or that India is a smelly, unappetizing place that must be smothered in spices in order to be palatable. Who knows?
For the first year business went decently, but not very well, thanks in part to the war. We were also competing with well-established restaurants like Firpos — where they served haute cuisine (as haute as the rationing would allow) and pretended they were located in Piccadilly Circus and Cathay, the only decent Chinese place in town, though they suffered terribly from the rice shortages. The American servicemen loved Cathay and The American Kitchen—another Chinese joint. Oddly, Chinese places reminded them of home. But The Duck offered something that none of these other places did; women, nautch girls if you will, but with a modern twist. My girls were Hollywood glamour all the way. Patience, you know, even looked like Merle Oberon, from that other film you hated, Wuthering Heights. She claimed they were related but I doubt it. I hand picked these girls, sometimes right out of the maw of utter destitution. At least two of them were facing an inevitable demise from disease and botched abortions in some shanty brothel north of Tollygunge somewhere if I had not come along. After the club opened, we had some difficulties with the Americans stationed here, which threw your father and I together. I have to say they are a most paradoxical and peculiar group of people, the Americans. They are not as stuffy and formal as the British. They treat all the Indians they encounter with warmth and innocent curiosity. I noticed they love to laugh and are generally sentimental and optimistic, yet they segregated their colored soldiers and treated their Jewish soldiers with suspicion and contempt. I guess they are more self-indulgent. Three Negro soldiers were accused of attacking one of my girls, though the situation turned out to be a bit more complicated than we first thought and your father was involved in the case.
Well, this is my legacy to you—among other things, not quite as delightful. Someday, I know you are going to want to know where you came from, where I ran off to every Sunday and what kind of a man your father was. I want to say that he was the best of men. He could have been. I firmly believe that. But fate and the time he was born into conspired against him. Your father, in an ill-conceived effort to rid himself of his feelings for me, volunteered to fight off the Japanese and re- build a road. He was nearly felled by disease and despair but people were counting on him so he persevered. He came back to me for a short time, a superstitious man believing in ghosts and angels. He claimed that the Japanese were ultimately supernatural and unafraid of death. They had given their souls to their emperor and so had nothing to fear. This made them almost impossible to defeat. As usual he, and his ilk grossly underestimated the Asians. They thought them inferior and expected to trounce them within weeks of arriving in Burma. It cost them thousands of men. The jungle was another enemy, in some ways even more formidable. He told me it swallowed men whole—on both sides, or ate away at them slowly. When your father returned from Burma he came carrying three demons on his back. His life in Connecticut, me, and what he had seen in the jungle. He knew he had failed to live up to his potential. I ended despising him for it. Too many things conspired against us. The war, rules about race and class that were in place for hundreds of years, and our own limitations. This was my karma phal, the fruit of my fate and I cannot say that it was all rotten. It was an adventure, after all.
I want you to know that your karma doesn’t have to be tied into your father’s or mine. So please try not be burdened by it.
I fear, though, that some of these letters may have suffered from too many nights at The Lighthouse Cinema. I do love a good war-torn love story. Speaking of love: I love you. This is my story. This is your story—but only the bits you choose to claim. Use it; discard it, whatever you want. But please, please don’t let it end with me.
June 25th, 1942
The girls of Bombay Duck except Yasmine, who was awake well before, arose by noon, washed and hung their precious few silk stocking to dry, hummed, smoked, and gave one another massages. They traded stories about the previous night’s events; who got that lecherous British adjutant to deal with, whose wife came with their husband to keep an eye, and glare at Patience, the main girl, who got the low tipper, who felt they sang off key. At 5 pm sharp they took their meal together in the main room, which had been cleared early that morning, aired of the stale smoke, sweat and liquor, tables pushed to the side, chairs neatly stacked, floor swept, and bar wiped down. The staff grumbled that within a few hours the room would once again be smelly and in some disarray so why did Yasmine insist on sweeping every nook and cranny? Yasmine believed that the club came alive every night, as if for the first time. It was reborn, with new energy, new patrons, new stories. No two nights were the same, and it required a blank slate. She also insisted the evening meal before the doors opened was taken together so everyone could sit down and listen to one another. She felt creating a hierarchy of caste and religion would only cause problems for her later. At the Duck, she said to everyone individually their first day, there was no “India” as they knew it. That, in fact, this was not India. “Yes,” Patience would quip, “You have entered Yasministan, where there is no caste, no God is held higher than any other, the sexes are equal, but the Rupee, above all, reigns supreme.”
Yasmine made sure the lighter skinned girls were not treated better, nor were the men, such as Pharoah and his band mates or Adil Babboo, considered mentally superior. This sat well with everyone and they played along. The youngest performer, Radhika, was a 16 year old Shudra, a low caste, Madhu, another one of the performers, was a strict vegetarian, and possibly a Brahmin, though she never talked about it, but did not object to eating next to anyone consuming meat and did not insist her food be prepared separately. Asma was Parsi, educated and persnickety by nature. She held herself above everyone at the Duck. Even Yasmine. One got the impression she would find fault with King George’s table manners if she were dining with him. At this table Muslims broke bread with Hindus, a reformed Catholic and at least one Atheist—Yasmine herself. On the “outside”, beyond the Duck’s doors, where India sweltered, and grew increasingly restless, this would not be possible.
Yasmine arbitrated who performed on stage first or last. But when it came to meals, even the lowliest peon, who cleaned the latrines and ran errands, was served the same food and the same amount, though they ate after serving the girls and the band.
It was not that Yasmine was making a political or social point. It was that it was impractical to be divisive. It was bad for business. She did not believe in dividing and conquering, though, as she and everyone around her would find out a few years later, the British most certainly did.
The meals were usually a raucous affair, with much arguing and laughter and good natured teasing. It was everyone’s way of getting ready for the night’s inevitable intensity. Yasmine also used the time to observe how everyone was doing and feeling, to watch the interaction of the girls in case there was simmering resentments or quarrels that needed mending. They worked the club as one entity, trawling the room, and creating the necessary energy needed for the soldiers to keep spending money and if the girls’ chemistry was off then Yasmine noticed a substantial dip in the night’s take. These men were facing death, or had faced it and they came to Bombay Duck to forget that for a time. Feminine squabbles and malcontent undermined the fantasy.
That evening they sat around lingering over their meager dinner of some watery lentils, a small fistful of previously verminous rice, and two scrawny chickens that Adil Baboo had to trade a bottle of black market whiskey for. He boiled the worms out of the rice but joked they were pure protein and would have been a much welcome delicacy if one were starving in a Burmese jungle. They had not had meat in two weeks because all they received was served to the customers. Worse still, the government had started rationing rice more actively, claiming there was a shortage and it was needed for the troops. This spelled disaster for Calcutta and Bengal but no one was aware of that yet. It was an artificial shortage and the common people did not find that out until it was too late and millions were dead. Yasmine’s black market connections had not been able to provide her with anything substantial in a while. What she could find, she had to pay top dollar for, and had barely broken even as there had been several nights when the men did not spend as much as they normally did.
More and more Americans were arriving in the city which was good for business, but meant the war was getting bigger—and closer.
“Did you see the latest they are sending over to Burma?” Yasmine said, referring to the Americans who would be deployed soon. “It is mostly colored men and very young soldiers, with some older engineers who would be building a road between India and China.”
“England is the only safe place in Europe,” Asma said wistfully. She longed to go live on a stormy moor somewhere in a stone house with a draughty chimney, pining after a chaste love. “It’s Germany, France and Poland that are not.”
“Not if you live back home. The Germans keep bombing it,” Patience said. She always referred to England as “Home” even though she had never been there and had been born in Calcutta. Many Anglo-Indians thought of England as their real home, and felt they had ended up in India by some cruel mistake. “The Japs won’t bother bombing Calcutta,” she added. This was proven to be un true as the Japanese would start bombing Calcutta in earnest a mere six months later.
“I heard a terrible thing a few days ago. I am sure it can’t be true. It’s too evil,” Adil Babboo said. “I heard that Hitler has built these camps, these places where there are herding all the Jews in Europe and killing them, slaughtering them like cattle. They even take them in cattle cars to these places.”
“Children as well?” Asma asked. Adil Babboo nodded. Asma shuddered.
“No, it must be a rumor,” Yasmine said.
“He wants them all out forever,” Madhu said.
Yasmine was truly doubtful. “If Hitler is trying to take over the world, why would he bother with a few Jews?”
Madhu shrugged. “Who knows? But if Hitler wins, he will want to rid India of her Jews as well. All five of them.”
“We’re not blonde and blue eyed either,” Asma said. “He’ll probably rid India of Indians.”
“A few less Indians wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Patience said. She smiled wickedly. “We reproduce like cockroaches. At least there would be more room on the street cars.”
“Actually he must like us,” Madhu said. “He even took a Hindu symbol. It’s the swas tika after all. He only hates Jews.”
“He’s probably just going to get rid of everybody. He’ll be so lonely he’s going to have to kill himself,” Yasmine said.
“Well that’s one way to solve the world’s problems,” Asma said.
“His right hand man, what’s his name?” someone asked.
“Goebbels,” Asma said.
“He looks like an undertaker,” Yasmine said. “Perfect!”
Everyone laughed again, this time a bit more heartily. Rahul, the young peon, started clearing the dishes away.
Asma gathered all the silverware together and piled them on to a dish and handed it to him. Everyone watched as Rahul kept adding more dishes and silverware on to his tray.
“Arre Rahul,” Yasmine said, “You do this every time, and every time you break something.
Rahul gave her toothy grin and kept grabbing things off the table. Patience snatched a glass out of his hand before he placed it on the top of the precarious pile of dishes.
“If you break anything, I’m taking it out of your wages,” Yasmine said, shaking her head and stifling a smile.
“I don’t care if he is doing that!” Radhika, suddenly cried out. This startled Rahul, causing him to drop a dish, shattering it. He managed to steady the tray. Everyone stared at Radhika in a confused silence.
“He hates the Ingrez. He wants to destroy them! Anyone who fights the English is my friend,” she continued. It took a second or two before it dawned on people that she was talking about Hitler and not Rahul. Radhika’s was not an unusual sentiment. Many Indians at the time supported Hitler because he was fighting the British. A distant, Chittagongian, relation of Yasmine’s even named her sons Hitler and, paradoxically the other one, Stalin. After the war, the little boys were known mostly as Hitoo and Staloo, as no one wanted to draw attention to their misguided monikers
The Indians were well tired of the Raj and if Hitler was going to stand up to them, then bully for him was the general mood in the country. Yasmine, on the other hand, never trusted Hitler. He was still European, and appeared more obsessed with class and race than anyone. There was no evidence he would be a just ruler, but she ventured at times, he would be better than Hirohito.
Until this outburst Radhika had been quiet all through the meal but that was normal for her. She saved all her energy for her dancing it seemed. No one tried too hard to engage her in small talk anymore. She had picked at her food—that was not normal as she usually gulped it down like it would be snatched from her at any moment. She was moody, however, and unpredictable—and since she was also sixteen Yasmine just assumed she was being her resentful self.
“It’s time to get ready, Radhika,” Yasmine said, firmly taking charge. She clapped her hands twice and ushered the girl up the stairs, ignoring the teenager’s scowl.
“Adil Baboo wants to do a sound check on one of the mikes, Patience. We had a terrible time last Tuesday night with the sound system, so please help him,” Yasmine said.
Radhika’s anti-English rant was worrisome. There was a great deal of paranoia in the air because of the agitation to end the Raj. “The stultifying air in Calcutta,” a drunken, and disgruntled English customer once said to Yasmine, “smells of burning trash, and treason.”
Yasmine herself noticed that more and more posters around town admonished, “Loose Lips Sinks Ships” and others showed images of luridly grinning, slant eyed, and oddly fanged Japanese soldiers brandishing bayonets and threatening cherubic, white babies. Yet another one depicted a comely blonde temptress holding court with a gaggle of adoring men. “Keep mum, she’s not so dumb,” it warned.
She remembered this suddenly and it made her anxious. She would have to watch Radhika carefully.
The band-leader, Pharaoh and his musicians wandered in wearing white jackets and loosened black bow ties. They all made their way to the stage to set up. The mike gave off a screech, breaking into Yasmine’s reverie. The club slowly came to life. Lights were switched on, chairs were set upright. The musicians tuned their instruments and laughed amongst themselves and smoked cigarettes.
EXCERPT FROM “YASMINE” BY SHARBARI AHMED